FLORIDA KEYS - Visual artistry can be seen virtually everywhere in the Florida Keys: in the palm-fringed shorescapes that edge the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, the orange and purple abstracts unrolling across vast skies at sunset, and the clean-lined arches of the old Overseas Highway bridges silhouetted like sculptures against nature's blue-green backdrop.
Yet even if visitors discount these creative efforts - and even if they never step inside one of the Keys' numerous galleries - they'll still glimpse an abundance of art. From whimsical large-scale sculptures to vibrant ocean murals, outdoor artistry inspires interest and smiles throughout the island chain.
Many examples of art can be seen along the Overseas Highway that traverses the length of the Keys. Perhaps because the roadway stretches above and alongside the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico, a good number of the roadside creations depict the marine life that inhabits these waters.
In Key Largo, you’ll find a 7,500-square-foot mural portraying other undersea denizens — inhabitants of the living coral reef that parallels the Keys. Painted in 2007 by the renowned marine life artist Wyland, an Upper Keys resident, the mural wraps around all four sides of a four-story building in the highway median at mile marker 99.2.
“It’s the gateway to the Florida Keys,” said Wyland, who credits his frequent Keys reef dives with being an ongoing inspiration for his work. “The idea was to welcome people as they drove in from South Florida with a depiction of the sun warming the tropical waters here — taking people above and below the surface to see the tremendous abundance of marine life and color.”
The mural features manatees, manta rays, corals, indigenous fish and bottlenose dolphins. Like Wyland’s other large-scale creations around the world, it’s designed to encourage environmental awareness and stewardship.
At mile marker (MM) 83 bayside in Islamorada, two exterior walls of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum serve as a canvas for a large-scale undersea mural painted by internationally acclaimed artists David Dunleavy and Guy Harvey. Dedicated in February 2005, the 360-foot mural features manatees, a whale shark, finfish and endangered marine life found on the living coral reef that parallels the Keys.
The friendly dolphins that inhabit Florida Keys waters are represented in an unusual medium - shrubbery - outside Theater of the Sea at MM 84.5 oceanside in Islamorada. Created from ficus growing on shaped metal frames, the leafy dolphins have cavorted outside the popular marine park, which is believed to be one of the oldest such facilities in the world, for about 15 years.
An approximately 30-foot sculpted dolphin mother and calf beckon visitors to Dolphin Research Center, a not-for-profit education and research facility located at MM 59 bayside on Grassy Key in the heart of the Florida Keys. Created in 1978 by Dale Hudson and Gary Jones, the sculpture entices visitors inside to meet the dolphin pod that inhabits the center's saltwater lagoons and experience the educational and interactive programs offered.
In nearby Marathon, in a shopping center near MM 50 oceanside, visitors can discover an undersea mural painted by internationally acclaimed marine life artist Wyland assisted by Guy Harvey. One of Wyland's renowned "Whaling Wall" murals, the Marathon wall depicts the area's indigenous dolphin, sharks, barracuda and sea turtles as well as a mother humpback whale and her calf. Wyland, a part-time Florida Keys resident and a recognized pioneer of the environmental art movement, credits diving the Keys' coral reef as a significant inspiration for his work.
Wheels, not whales, are featured in a quirky three-dimensional installation at MM 30 oceanside on Big Pine Key: a NASCAR race car seemingly crashing through the exterior wall of the NAPA Auto Parts store. The piece depicts the car of NASCAR legend Michael Waltrip, and it elicits double-takes and grins from passersby.
Local artist Rick Worth began his colorful career turning shabby cars into "art-o-mobiles" - and the cars he and several other creative spirits adorned can still be seen on island streets.
Worth, a longtime proponent of outdoor art, also has painted several murals on local buildings - including a rooftop scene outside Key West International Airport and a takeoff of the famed depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware, incorporating the Keys' Seven Mile Bridge, on a wall at Simonton and Olivia streets.
Sculptors' work is displayed in numerous locations throughout Key West - from Jim Racchi's sentinel standing guard atop historic Fort Zachary Taylor to the life-size bronze of Ernest Hemingway, created by Terry Jones, outside the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House, 281 Front St.
The art of master sculptor James Mastin - bronze busts of 36 men and women who shaped Key West's history - is showcased in the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden adjacent to Mallory Square. The busts center around Mastin's 25-foot-tall monument depicting early wreckers who braved the wrath of the sea to salvage passengers and cargoes from ships foundering on the Keys' reefs.
If these outdoor creations tempt further explorations into the Keys' rich arts community, visitors can find galleries offering virtually all types of art throughout the island chain. The annual cultural calendar is packed with gallery openings, art walks, and art and craft shows featuring artistry in many mediums.
Mother and calf sculpture by Dale Hudson and Gary Jones greets visitors to the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key in Marathon. Photo courtesy of Dolphin Research Center.
Sculptor Jim Racchi's "Standing Guard" sculpture atop historic Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West. Photo courtesy of Jim Racchi.
Colorful mural, painted by David Dunleavy and Guy Harvey, adorns the side wall of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum in Islamorada. Photo by Belinda Serata.